Habermas and critical theory (a primer)

I am co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and using this blog to share my notes for roughly half of the 18 topics we cover. Yesterday morning’s discussion focused on Jürgen Habermas. The readings for that module were:

Background on the Frankfurt School

The following summary is brutally simplified and merely intended to be introductory.

Karl Marx posited that the economic system is fundamental. Culture (e.g., religion, political ideology, style and fashion) simply arises from economics. In other words, he made a distinction between structure and superstructure. Real politics is an effort to change the economic structure; any other strategy is pointless.

By the 1920s, some intellectuals of Marxist background were skeptical of this theory, because the working class was not revolutionary, even though they were numerous, organized, and equipped with political tools like the vote. Instead, working people were often nationalistic and reactionary. These intellectuals argued that culture must affect behavior. In particular, contemporary culture was shaping working people into reactionaries.

They criticized mainstream academic scholarship for being ideologically biased (in favor of the status quo) and positivistic (presuming that there could be straightforward “facts”). Drawing on Freud, Hegel, Nietzsche, and other non-Marxist sources, they sought a critical theory that would challenge and undermine prevailing culture.

This general stance has been a major (but not the only) influence on post-War feminism, critical race studies, post-colonialism, etc.

But in holding that culture determines ideas and values in a harmful but overwhelmingly pervasive way, they may have found a cul-de-sac. Works like Horheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment are profoundly pessimistic. All they do is point out that we are subject to debilitating biases.


Habermas (born in 1929) has led the post-war generation of the Frankfurt school. Starting in the late 1950s as a student of Horkeimer’s, he agreed that communication shapes values and behaviors and that some communication is manipulative and harmful. But he distinguished between:

communicative action versus instrumental or strategic action

In communicative action, you try to persuade someone else of the truth. Truth can be empirical and/or normative. For example, “genocide is evil” is a true statement, not just an opinion or preference. When I say it, I mean it to be true and expect it to achieve agreement. A valid communication is one that would persuade in the absence of coercion and other flaws (such as lack of time and attention). It would persuade in an “ideal speech situation.”

The logic of communicative action constrains what you can say. It isn’t persuasive to say, “I want to pay lower taxes.” You have to say, “I deserve to pay lower taxes because …”  (For example, “… because I would use the money I saved to hire more workers”). Your explanations then become testable. Is it true that you would hire more workers?

In instrumental action, you try to get someone else to do what you want; you make him your instrument.

Whether communicative action or instrumental action pays off depends on the social or institutional context. There is no such thing as an ideal speech situation, but speech situations vary significantly, and the ideal is a useful heuristic.

An important example of an institutional change is the rise of the public sphere in the Enlightenment. Under the Old Regime, governmental affairs were not considered to be the public’s business. Even talking about governmental affairs could be punishable.

But people started meeting in coffee houses and reading newspapers. Coffee houses and newspapers were institutional manifestations of a new ideal. The ideal said: everyone has a right to an opinion; opinions should be freely and civilly exchanged; the only force should be the force of the best argument (regardless of who says it); and the public opinion that emerges should be listened to.

This ideal was not true. Not everyone had a voice in the coffee houses, and the government did not listen to public opinion. But the ideal had power because people could be challenged to live up to it. That resulted in:

  • Parliamentary government (as a hinge between public opinion and administration)
  • Laws protecting free speech and public rights to information
  • Universal suffrage and universal education

One more Habermasian distinction (illustrated by examples from Twitter):

Lifeworld is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, maybe somewhat limited or biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. When in the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be cryptic to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. Real examples from Twitter: “y 21st bday with my beloved fam, bf and bff :)” … “Getting blond highlights for new year.” … “Thanks! You too! I hope you get a chance to rest over the weekend before ‘life’ comes back at us.”

The “System” is composed of formal organizations such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in systems have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit with ethical constraints on how they get there). For example, defense lawyers are supposed to defend their clients; corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit; comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. You can see the “System” at work on Twitter if you follow Microsoft (“The Official Twitter of Microsoft Corporate Communications”), The White House, or NYTimes.

The Public Sphere, then, is the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, New England Town Meetings, and parts of the Internet. The logic of public discourse demands that one give general reasons and explanations for one’s views–otherwise, they cannot be persuasive. Examples from Twitter: “Is it time to admit that the failures in our intelligence on terrorism are not systemic/technical but human/cultural?” “Clyburn Compares Health Care Battle To Struggle For Civil Rights” … “Reports from Iran of security forces massing in squares as new footage of protests is posted.” (Note that each of these tweets had an embedded link to some longer document.)

The “colonization of the Lifeworld” means efforts by Systems to take over ordinary life. Examples?

Today, Habermas’ theory can serve as a critical barometer. Consider something like the recent Supreme Court decision (Citizens United) that gives corporations unlimited rights to spend money on campaigns. What would Habermas make of that?

I’d say: Corporations are part of the “system” and they are legally required to maximize returns for shareholders. Thus their communication must be instrumental. When they pay for campaign ads, they are distorting the public sphere and/or colonizing the lifeworld.


This book is (in part) an example of “applied Habermas.” Two cases in Eliasoph’s chapters illustrate problems with our public sphere:

  1. People in an anti-drugs volunteering group live right near a concentration of toxic waste cites created by their government, but they say they would never address that issue because it’s not “close to home.” Drug abuse is “close to home” and they can deal with it.
  2. People in an environmental group have private conversations that are public-spirited and sophisticated. But when they get on camera, they act as completely self-interested private people. Just moms concerned about their property values.

Does this ring true? Why would it be? What could we do about it?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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